How to Secure College Merit Aid: 9 Steps To Take Junior and Senior Year of High School

Teen in a graduation gown raising her arm in excitement and success

How to Secure College Merit Aid: 9 Steps To Take Junior and Senior Year of High School

Published on December 3, 2023

Teen in a graduation gown raising her arm in excitement and success

Recently Melissa G., a parent in our Paying for College 101 Facebook Group whose child got into the College of Charleston with significant merit aid, looked back on her child’s junior and senior year of high school and offered her best advice for how both students and parents can prepare. Other parents were so appreciative that her tips were shared myriad times.

We gathered her best advice below. Digest it, share it, and if your child is coming up on their junior senior year of high school, consider putting it into practice so they can maximize the amount of merit they receive. 

I’ve been asked for suggestions and ideas for preparing for the junior and senior year of high school for those who want their student to receive merit aid. I was a Pell Grant recipient and am still repaying my own student loans. I worked hard, but our family has an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) that far exceeds any AFCICAGMDD (Actual-Financial-Contribution-I-Can-Actually-Give-My-Dear-Daughter).

She is about to start at the Honors College at the College of Charleston and after choosing a lower-cost dorm and required meal plan, her total out-of-pocket will be around $1500 per semester this year, and $3500 for each of the rest. She’s working two jobs during the summer to earn that money, but we will help her close any gap.

Let’s Start With Exceptional Grades, Scores, And Extracurriculars 

My daughter just graduated from our local public high school with a 5.something, only two Bs in all of high school, a 1400 SAT, eight AP, and two dual enrollment classes, (including a few 5s on AP exams). She also participated in a lot of extracurricular activities, including a book club that received grant funding from a local university. 

Do not let your kids fall for the “B in honors/AP/Dual Enrollment is like an A in a regular class” line. It’s not true. Grades in all classes matter a lot; try to get As. That said, it’s not the end of the world if they don’t and don’t take easier classes to get straight As. When it comes to merit aid, schools are looking for students who can get As in accelerated classes.

Relationships With Teachers Matter

Make sure your students understand the importance of developing good relationships with their teachers as these are the people who will be writing recommendation letters.

Start A Resume And Update It Constantly

It’s really hard to remember all the special honors and awards they receive throughout high school during application season, so starting a resume that lists each achievement early is a good idea. The Common App, the most popular college app service, only allows you to list up to 10 awards and honors but a lot of scholarships and honors colleges want a full list.

Committing To Something Throughout High School Can Make A Difference

My daughter’s participation in all-state and all-region choir for her four years of high school led to her receiving over $18,000 in combined music scholarships. 

I honestly think that the experience they get from being committed to something helps them have something to talk about in interviews and scholarship applications. Having a passion project can have the same impact. It can be volunteering in youth sports, volunteering at a shelter, or mentoring younger kids at a local after-school program. It’s much better to have a lot of time spent on something that matters to the student than a lot of random hours doing a lot of different things. For example, if the environment is important, picking up trash for two hours every week and organizing a community clean-up has incredible value. Just going and picking up trash once or twice with the school Beta Club isn’t as impactful.

Test Scores Are Key To Receiving Many Scholarships

The PSAT given during the fall of junior year is the only one that counts for the National Merit Scholarship. No matter how many other times they take it, that is the only one they will use. Sadly, we didn’t know that, so we missed that chance. I wish we would have done SAT prep the summer before junior year and had her take it.

Either way, definitely do test prep for the SAT and ACT. Many high-achieving students have great grades and while a lot of schools say they accept students without test scores, they rarely offer scholarships without high test scores.

Apply Early Action Whenever Possible

Most schools have two early application options and they give most of their merit money away in this early application process. 

Early decision means that no matter what scholarships they get, if they admit you, you are under contract to attend even if it means paying full price.

Early Action means you have your stuff together and want to apply as soon as the application is open but there’s no obligation to attend. Schools are required to notify you of their decision before regular admission decisions.

Don’t Ignore Small To Medium-Sized Schools 

We found that very few large universities give much merit money, other than the University of Alabama, for example. Small and medium colleges work harder to bring talented students, and that includes merit aid offers.

Start Applying For Scholarships During Junior Year of High School

There are lots of scholarships that high school juniors and seniors can apply for, so start as a junior if you can. Even if it’s just to get over the initial fear of applying for something that you might not get, the sooner they overcome that, the more they will apply for. 

There are additional scholarships available for students in the honors colleges, too, so have your students apply if they meet the requirements. There are also lots of department scholarships at the colleges so have them research available monies and apply for those too.

The Secret To Great Essays

Make sure that they start a Google doc with all of their scholarship essays. My daughter rewrote the same four to five essays depending on the prompt. Also, when it comes to essay writing, encourage your students to write them at least a week before they are due so they can ask a trusted teacher, advisor, or even a local librarian to read over their essays and give feedback. The student needs to write it themselves but they can learn a lot through the process.

Don’t let them say things like “I care about the environment and it’s all I can read/think/about.” Instead, encourage them to tell a short story of something they did to improve the environment that shows they care about it.

Keep Senior Year Course Load Manageable

If your student plans on chasing merit aid and outside scholarships, discourage them from taking a difficult senior-year course load. My daughter took 4 APs and Honors Spanish 4 and it was difficult to combine with the demands of scholarship, honors college, and college applications. 

In one particular two-week period, she had three different secondary applications due while at the same time, she was requesting teacher recommendations, writing new essays, and participating in phone or virtual interviews in addition to her regular classes. You don’t necessarily get much notice for secondary items, sometimes just one week. 

Keep an open mind! My daughter is thrilled to be going to the College of Charleston, a school we didn’t even consider in the beginning!

Take part in this and other, similar conversations in our Paying for College Facebook Group, where you’ll find great advice from parents just like you.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

College Application Resume Guide and Template

High School Resumes May Be More Valuable Than Ever for College Admissions

Early Decision vs Early Action: Ins and Outs, Pros and Cons, and How to Choose




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